The Nave     
Early Christian churches emphasized the importance of the communal gathering and there were few screens, canopies, or curtains separating worshippers from another, or clergy from the congregation, or the congregation from the 'mysteries.'  Walls and screens came in slowly, starting with a wall beween the choir and the congregation.  By the latter middle ages, the great monastic churches and cathedrals had separated the belly of the church into distinct sections, with walls or screens at the narthex, choir, and presbytery (chancel).  The goal at the time was to place primary importance on the most sacred part of the church, that of the high altar, where priests celebrated the Mass and Eucharist.

The Nave today is usually the largest part of the church, the place where the general congregation assembles for worship.  In the middle ages, however, it was not necessarily largest and could be quite small.  Additionally, the medieval nave did not include benches or chairs for seating: the congregation stood.  The only seating provided were stone benches built into the church walls where the elderly, sick, or disabled could rest.

[Interior of St. John and St. Paul's, Venice, Italy]
   Churches of the middle ages were laid out in the form of the cross, with the top of that cross being the easternmost point. The parts of the church grew progressively more sacred the more easterly they were, so that while lowly penitents might enter the Narthex or Galilee, they might not gain entrance to the Nave, and certainly not the Quire (choir).  (In some cases women, as well, might enter the Galilee but not cross into the nave.)  The monks alone (with an occasional lay participant) could enter the quire, and of them, only the selected brethren, those chosen to special posts (or obedientiaries) or performing sacred duties (such as the priest, cantor, or abbot), could enter the inner sanctum of the chancel.

 In some ways the configuration of the medieval churches imitate that of the 'great halls' built by the Kings of the West.  In his palace or citadel, the medieval king would sit atop a throne on a raised daia at the top of an ornate and open hall.  No one else in the hall would be allowed to sit, though they might lie prostrate on the floor.  The great halls provided a physical demonstration of king's power and position (often further decorated with religious symbols).  Only the chosen few, close aides, esteemed allies or officers, were allowed access to him and the dais.  All other petitioners must keep their place or grovel at the door.   

[Throne room, Neuschwanstein Castle, Upper Bavaria, Germany]
While the ideals of the church communities differed from those of governing kings, some of the trappings that denoted power were similar for the church as for the hall.  Most particularly the use of penitential entries, halls (naves), raised dais as inner sanctum (high altar), and thrones.  Like a king, the Abbot or Bishop, as the tititular head of that church, diocese, or see, would sit at the top, eastern part of the church in  large, ornate thrones during the Divine Offices, feasts and during Mass.   

The Nave itself (or Navis, the Latin word for ship), was the central area of the church and in general use by the congregation.  The area of the Nave included all the lateral space after the Narthex to the Choir Screen, including to the north and south of any supporting (or decorative) columns, arches or other architecture.  Church activities in this space included guild plays (religious in nature) and fundraisers, just as today.  In the middle ages, fund raising included a occasion to celebrate, such as a wedding or successful lambing season, and the distribution of plenty of good ale. 

Copyright (c) Richenda Fairhurst and, 2007  All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.  Keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.